by Andrew Gray
Over the years, my family tree has had a few branches that pruned themselves.
When I was 12, my favorite uncle took his own life. A decade or so later, Mom followed in her brother’s footsteps. And lately, both of my teenagers have flirted with the idea of appearing in the local obituary. Death seems to linger in the air around me like a rancid fart.
I don’t usually lead with that introduction at cocktail parties, but I needed to set the stage before pulling back the curtain on my own mental health drama. Spotlight, please.
In the Year of our Lord Two Thousand and Two, I myself was a teenager, and I owned a dangerously fast motorcycle. Hippies called it a crotch rocket. Thanks to my prefrontal cortex—the region of the brain responsible for decision making, which isn’t fully developed until 25—I did a lot of stupid stuff on that bike. Public roads became my personal racetrack. I used to triple the speed limit, taunting death with every twist of the throttle. Sometimes the cops would give chase. In return, I’d give the one finger salute and go AWOL. I was young. I was free. I was invincible.
It didn’t take long, though, for Superman to discover his kryptonite.
After careening into a guardrail at 140 mph, I was medivac’d to the nearest hospital and rushed into surgery. I awoke to an angry nurse lecturing me about “donorcycles,” a flip reference to the high rate of death among motorcycle riders whose organs are harvested for transplant. Clever, right? Apparently donorcycles have killed more Americans than the War of 1812.
Normally, I’d be offended. Like seriously, Sally, read the effing room. You think now is the time to wag your latex-covered finger at me? But by that point, I’d taken enough narcotics to make a Rick James concert look like a Boy Scout convention. So I just giggled and told the nurse she was pretty, then passed out.
From morphine dreams to nightmare reality. I regained consciousness to discover that the limb formerly known as my right foot had become a bloody, flesh-textured sock puppet. I was amputated below the knee. Care to guess what happens when a vain teenager becomes disfigured and thinks he’ll never be attractive enough to have sex again?
He wants to grow up and be like his mom. And self-prune.
As the clock ticked on my recovery, time did not heal all wounds. The psychological pain and suffering grew more unbearable with each passing day. The lure of the void promised immediate relief. For years these dark calls went unanswered, despite ringing louder than a cellphone in a movie theater. One day I found myself rocking back and forth in the living room, holding a loaded Glock to my temple as a waterfall of tears streamed down my face.
At some point during this crisis, I noticed my shirtless reflection in the mirror. Then I threw up in my mouth a little. What the eff is that? My frame was small, my belly was wide, and I had less muscle definition than a bowl of Jello. I was skinny fat. On that very day, I drove my ass to the nearest gym, signed up for a membership, and started lifting weights.
Surprisingly, as I continued lifting, so too did my depression. And as my strength increased, so too did my confidence. Once I was able to deadlift more than my bodyweight, I no longer considered myself disabled.
There was, however, a small caveat.
Where I come from, barbell squatting was the gold standard of masculinity. In fact, it was considered so important to the development of the young male that the exercise was taught in first-grade PE class. Some kids paid attention, others were preoccupied with eating glue for lunch and playing hopscotch with all the cootie girls at recess. As an adult, it didn’t matter if you could deadlift a helicopter while wearing Fabletic camo shorts with the phrase “GET SOME” tattooed on your forehead. If you couldn’t squat a respectable amount of weight, you couldn’t call yourself a man.
The squat was king. Yet despite my best efforts, I remained a peasant with a prosthesis.
What started as a small inconvenience—Oh, I can’t bend down with some weight on my shoulders? No biggie, I’ll just deadlift Apaches and get more face tattoos—grew into a black hole that began sucking my mental health back into that familiar abyss. When the spirit is willing but the flesh is incapable, it feels like you’re a prisoner in your own body. My prosthetic leg was the cell; my amputated limb, the warden. And my inability to squat was a painful reminder that I was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, all for the crime of having once been a stupid teenager.
It wasn’t about the squat itself. It was about the “can’t.”
Can’t is a threat to personal freedom.
Can’t is un-American.
Can’t is a cancer in the mind of an ambitious man that slowly consumes the will to live. A cancer that can only be removed by doing the impossible.
Which means . . . . .
I’m a dead man walking. A zombie.
Because I can’t.
And to think, at one point I considered becoming a motivational speaker lol. Oh how the mighty have fallen.
Friends and family were appalled to see me waving this white flag, having watched me navigate the rough seas of disability with the poise of Captain Hook. “You’re so strong! You’re so brave!” they’d say. To them, I was some inspiring handi-hero who relentlessly defended his ship against joy pirates and sea monsters. But the bags under these eyes revealed the truth hidden behind my smile: I’m tired of being resilient. So I think I’ll just surrender to the squat and sleep through the zombie apocalypse, thank you very much.
Fate, of course, had other plans.
It’s no coincidence that at this exact low point, I found a fellow amputee on Instagram named KC Mitchell (@that1legmonster). This adaptive stud posted countless videos of himself squatting the equivalent weight of a rhinoceros. Either he was using a green screen, or my excuses were about as valid as McLovin’s drivers license. Assuming the latter, I converted my white flag into a loin cloth and immediately got to work.
My initial squat routine consisted of me sitting down in a chair and standing back up. Exciting stuff. Then I graduated to air squats. Eventually I progressed to struggling with an empty barbell in the power rack. Someone’s grandma had to rush over and spot me at one point. But the grind was worth every embarrassing moment.
After months of slowly building up my leg strength with chairs, gravity, and rainbow-colored Fisher Price weights, I was ready to slap some 45s on a bar and grow up. This was my moment of truth.
The Rocky theme song played in the background as I approached the squat platform in slow motion. A sea of cameras flashed in quick succession. The crowd was abuzz. With all eyes on me, I took position under the barbell and hoisted the world onto my shoulders. After a brief pause to compose myself, I bent down and stood back up, shouting:
The crowd counting with me now.
Growing louder with each repetition.
Ready to erupt at any moment like Mount St. Helens.
Zombies and pirates and sea monsters stare in disbelief as the rep count quickly doubles.
Oh sweet land of liberty! The knockout bell rang with the sound of freedom. AND THE CROWD GOES WILD!!!!! RAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!! Confetti falls from the stadium ceiling. Scantily clad models leave lipstick prints on my cheeks. Don King walks over with a cardboard check the size of Manhattan. This is the best day of my life!
Then I racked the weights and snapped back to reality—an empty corner of Gold’s Gym on a Sunday afternoon. That’s where I quietly became a man.
Sometimes achieving a big goal isn’t as glamorous as winning a heavyweight title fight. But even if we aren’t greeted by a cheering section at the mountaintop, the views alone are worth the climb.
So thank you, Father Barbell. For on this day, in the hallowed House of Gainz, I found salvation by accepting the truth:
The only limitations that exist are in my mind.
Andrew Gray is a freelance writer and model. Follow him on Instagram at @drew.bionic.